Trans Magazine Interview

Trans Magazine Interview (Spring 1988)
Justin Lepanto with Walter Alter

JL Walter, most observers would agree that your artistic career has drawn its share of heat from the art establishment, and, interestingly, from the avant garde underground, as well. you’ve characterized yourself as a “pariah among pariahs”. your iconoclasm is apparent, particularly in your writings about the role of contemporary art in a technological society, and perhaps it’s that dual role of artist and critic which causes confusion. you’ve been rather hard on your contemporaries within the San Francisco art scene which could be considered strange since that area has a world wide reputation for its literary and artistic output.

WA yah, you’re right, but it’s the zone of activity that i’m most familiar with and i’m not going to hold back just because i might step on some toes. look at a map, San Francisco is shaped like a toe, you can’t move inside the city limits without stepping on it. my criticisms are valid although very incorrect from a party line standpoint, and that’s what provides most of the fun – showing artists how to apply their own standards to themselves. artistically speaking, San Francisco has nothing on the brain but bottled water at this juncture in history. for a city that was once the “Florence” of a mini-renaissance that really began the “New Age” shift in American society, it’s offspring exhibit more amnesia about its fundamental precepts than a modern savings and loan executive. the “psychedelic” playground is now an aesthetic wrecking yard, a mound of earth inhabited by phantom limbs. an archaeologist could really get his rake bent trying to excavate down through the layers of primitivist totems, psychoses masquerading as genius, mystical debaucheries, chthonic sexual circuses and excesses of personal and social disintegration carried out as experiments upon living subjects. but if he could get past the cliches, the hack ideologies, the amyl nitrate ampules, a great treasure of Promethean archetypes dealing with truth, beauty, integrity, adventure…all the marble virtues, could be exhibited as evidence that something of value occurred.

JL your state of irritation, then, could be attributed to what you perceived to be the unfulfilled promise of that particular era?

WA my state of irritation is best attributed to the auto-erotic ritual masturbatory strangulation performance that killed a young artist friend of mine at the San Francisco Art Institute on October 12, 1982. no, they don’t like to talk about it. let me tell you what we got here, kid. we got more cliques and synods than 13th Century Rome, more artistic bleeders, runts and hydrocephalics than a Byzantine citadel, and more Buddha faced bureaucrats than Idi Amin’s waiting room.

JL i can see how people might take your message in light of the way you express it. is the point you are trying to make dealing with an insufficiency within the artists themselves or the support institutions which serve the interests of the artists?

WA both. but mainly there is a glut of coaster artists in S.F. with the intellectual rigor of a cloud of gnats. lounge artists. wino artists. air artists- a race of schizo- hobbyists. lookit, artists are supposed to be brain surgeons for a society with multiple sucking head wounds. this is not a job for cliche-bloated libido junkies who have trouble locating the plastic end of a screwdriver. there are a few artists who got themselves somewhere without rubbing butts with the mind consultants at schmooze, bootlick & voodoo. hopefully they have outgrown the sugar tit infantile need to goon their brains on Swiss pharmaceuticals. but most are having themselves off with an act, merely “being there”. that is the territory of the idle rich. it is stylish to lose interest. the “boredom” icon is the dilettante’s last line of defense. anyone who needs to invoke “boredom” as their platform for a sense of personal grandeur will reduce the sum of human misery as much as those mad shit-throwing monkeys at the zoo.

JL so…you see the artists not living up to the expectations of the “scene” they have created, am i reading you correctly?

WA what they have created is a sense of “self” characterized by occasional signals of independent cognition, yet still connected invisibly to group approval. the truth is that tribal social structure is regimented, predictable and stifling. dependency bonding is infantile and anti- autonomous. it ultimately substitutes collective bureaucratic evasion for individual responsibility. you always end up with some overt or covert group-think, apparat-think, collective-think. look at the work/live space zoning struggle, for crissakes. who do you think almost torpedoed ten years worth of bureaucratic infighting- the downtown developers, the realtors association, the chamber of commerce? shit no, it was a clique of artists blinded by their own exalted vision and political imperative. i could`t believe it when i finally figured it all out. you had to be there. i get this call from Suzanna Montana, a Planning Commissioner who has been an artists’ ally in getting the intricate language for a new occupancy code that allows artists to convert industrial buildings into work/live studios. she asked me to come to a meeting at the S.F. Art Commission where there was expected to be some opposition to the legislation. at the meeting a representative from the State and Local Grants program wanted to make a minor change in the language which at that point stated unequivocally that work/live conversions were to be allowed for arts and arts related tenants only. this made sense to me since it was the only protection artists had against chic industrial lifestyle entrepreneurs with lots of money taking up all the space for their designer sweatshop/consulting businesses. hell, they could afford both an apartment and a separate work space, just like any other business. artists had a unique need to be living close to their work in large, well lit spaces with freight elevators and loading docks. i mean you do tend to lose inspiration fighting traffic across town to get to your studio in a bad part of town at a bad time of night. you get the picture. so this twitch is trying to convince everyone that such an exclusionary policy would make it impossible for certain developers of large scale artist loft conversions to get government loans under the low income housing provisions. i argued that artist constituency groups had been fighting for nearly a decade to make lofts legal and affordable. Claire Isaacs, the Art Commission Director, saw the point and steered the other members to adopt the legislation as originally written. the matter was then referred to the Planning Commission for their final approval and at that meeting a couple of new characters made their appearance- the developer of Project Artaud and the Sears Building complex, both of them large, well financed conversions; and a representative of Art House, an arts advocacy and grant writing organization. they again made the pitch for the language change, trying to gloss over the fact that government loans for low income housing required that most of the space be available to low income families as apartments! there was a bit of turmoil among the Liberal constituents on the Planning Commission but they were finally able to separate the issues of low income housing and artists work/live space and, like the Art Commission, recommended that the Planning Commission also approve the wording which reserved these conversions for the use of artists. the final round occurred at the Land Use Committee of the Board of Supervisors. just before we were to speak, i was asked into a meeting room where half a dozen men in suits tried to get me to see the benefits of big warehouses being thriving communities of creative energy. you had to be there. shit. 10 years of work stalled. at a subsequent meeting at Project Artaud to break the stalemate, the plot finally unravelled for everyone to see and it turned out that the perpetrators behind the developers were knot of Trotskyite conspirators from the old Goodman Building who had received approval from the Feds for a half million dollar low income loan. these ideological cadre hardheads had found themselves sitting on a half a million bucks that they had to spend or lose, and by a series of feints and deceptions by omission, were trying to push their agenda through under cover of being a groundswell of sentiment in favor of large scale building conversions on the part of San Francisco artists. at that time i lived in a converted meat packing plant that four of us shared and virtually every other artist i know of living in an industrial space has less than 5,000 square feet of of total space. these smaller buildings would all have become prey to wealthy architects, computer firms, owner- operator businesses of every description, who felt the compulsion to live out their Architectural Digest fantasy. by this time i had printed up a hundred or so handouts with the conspiracy revealed in detail and the “developer vanguard” was seriously losing credibility. there were an uncomfortable number of underground Anarcho-hipsters at the meeting in a state of pissed off. we finally arrived at a just compromise wherein the work/live ordinance would be exclusionary, artists only, in buildings of six living units or less, and open for low income loans for the larger warehouse projects. why those ideologues couldn’t have thought of that earlier, i’ll never know. had they been on Jesse Helms’ freight train, they couldn’t have created more potential for disintegration within the arts community. this is what i mean when i say that artists who band together for defense are playing with unstable areas of the creative personality. we should band together for offense, creative offence.

JL there have been more than a few battles pitching artists against mainstream values and institutions. it’s a way of life and raises the question of how this situational defensive posture affects the art that they do?

WA yes, this is a very important thing to think about. you have to realize that a defensive mentality is a conservative mentality. look at the current genres in art, a pile of cliches- Reactionary Neo-Primitivist, Transcendental Visionary Naif, texture-crazed Post-Modern, political cadre Agitprop, Nazi sado-bondage, self-mortification performance, shock art desensitization, funk debris box assemblage, Minimalist psychic vacuum cleaner. virtually all of it is some form of infantile sublimation that announces the incapacity to stand alone, be independent of the forces that form the persona. artists have got to figure out a few tricks about shaping one’s own destiny freed from dictatorship of nostalgia, myth, tragedy, futility, etc. all these philosophical predispositions are manipulative sophistries. the ’60’s started out constructive but ended up being destructive in many ways and is now perceived as having been largely a con.

JL how else could it have worked out? it was…an intense period of experi-mentation. nobody had a blueprint. it’s nature was a revolution against prediction and social forms that had been predictable up to that point.

WA yes, i agree. there is absolutely no doubt that the ’60’s were character- ized by genuine attempts to get social institutions into the fluid immedi- ate- capable of taking on the shape of human necessity and justice. i believe that the essential philosophy of that impulse was the recognition that life is process and not object. the whole art thing with “happenings” was exactly this recognition of flux. it became the name of the movement- “Fluxist”…brilliant! but the notion got tangled up by the camptown Aquarians who brayed on about cycles. ..about life-flux being cyclic. nobody questioned this Aquarian orthodoxy, it was so comforting to know that “what goes ’round, comes ’round”. duh. i think that the metaphysical cult aspects of the ’60’s did more to insure its eventual auto- cannibalization than anything else. process is not cyclic, is not closed, is not entropic. objects, on the other hand, are all these things. process is really the time container for all object interactions and is itself propagating in a straight line. straight line time allows object reality to sort itself out from chaos into harmonics. we humans have ideals and these ideals are harmonic resonances of time geometry. we may perceive cycles but we certainly don’t conceive in cycles. that is what separates us from the furry apes, what gives us power to escape the mechanistic destiny of the Newtonian billiard ball Universe of objects and biologically programmed robotic instinct. how can you create or discover in a Universe of cycles? a cycle is a closed loop. any improvement or progress must be the imposition of straight line action upon the cycle trap.

JL i’m not sure that’s going to reassure a lot of people in these times, but… ok…i’ve read some of your stuff and it’s evident that you have not been sitting on the sidelines. your work on the artists’ work/live issue, the Open Studio program and the Youth Arts Festival makes it evident that your adversarial role is not limited to criticism. you do have a desire to reconstruct the debris you leave in your wake. do you reconstruct with as heavy a hand as you deconstruct?

WA you decide. we’ve got to get out from under the oppression of cabals with hidden political agendas. this game is suffused with deception and we artists and performers suffer terribly from it. we are at an uncomfortable juncture. the Hegelian dialectic of history was a pragmatist’s fable. unless artists can find an intrinsically honest application for their ideals, we are going to be gone as a causal factor in human affairs. if the spiritual mumbo jumbo of the East vs. West variety is not closely examined for its veracity, artists may not be able to reconcile current events with their ideological frame of reference. the East is now more technological than the West, and is advancing technology, at least the crucial area of electronic technology, further and faster than the West. another contradiction: you try to downplay the need for technology and industrialization to someone from the Third World and they will look at you with disbelief and disgust. how much longer can we continue to operate saddled by political or spiritual ideologies that are fundamentally inimical to technological progress. look, just read: Buckminster Fuller’s Critical Path and Ideas and Integrities and then decide.

JL could you give us some clues as to what artists will have to do to avoid your predictions of obsolescence.

WA we desperately need to build a philosophy based upon origination rather than reaction. that is creative. original thinking is a precious quantity on this planet and we should develop a method to detect its existence. so much of the Radical agenda was based upon reactions against injustices such as the Viet Nam War. political movements of opposition result in the obvious logic: that without an injustice to oppose, the movement does not exist. so, existentially, there was more value to having a problem than solving it. in this regard the Socialists achieved decadence before the Capitalists, who were, at some level, inventing new processes and technologies, ie, originating in a forward direction rather than reacting to an extant situation. artists have got to come to grips with the power of technology to fulfill spiritual ends. we have succeeded in reaching a kindling threshold whereby we now have the knowledge to solve all, repeat, all, problems of material need. imagination and invention are the signatures of creativity. we have got an important task assigned to us and we are not going to be able to fulfill it to anyone’s satisfaction as manic-depressives in a perpetual state of personal train wreck. creation is joy. creation is not phoenix-like, predicated upon proir destruction. that’s a Nazi vision. improved situations are intrinsically attainable by harmonic means. it is the artist’s task to explain the nature of that harmony and create the potential for resonance with the ideal within the soul of the audience. with human well-being as the yardstick, efficiency becomes revolutionary. love is not all you need. you needs smarts.

JL i get what you are saying, but i’m not sure that it is such the departure you make it seem from the kind of creativity most artists are involved with. are there any artists who in modern times exemplify this approach?

WA the most vital and positive of 20th century art occurred within the DADA movement. for some reason the art faculties and historic surveys tend to treat the DADAists like a comic relief eddy to the ponderous main currents. the DADAists were seminal because they did two things. the first thing they did was to create art within a framework of analysis. they created art which dissected reality to see if different reassemlages might not offer an improvement. they absolutely broke the boundaries of the print medium, creating what is even today modern typesetting and layout. since print was the primary mass communication medium in the twenties, this willingness to work within media of mass communication with the aim of effecting them is a lesson that was shortsightedly lost within the ’60’s anti-TV rant. the second thing they did was to not loose their humor, in fact, to magnify it as a wellspring of rejuvenation. DADA was probably the most important art movement since the Florentine Renaissance. it nourished directly all subsequent art movements which operated in the objective 3-d world rather than the subjective, symbolic world. performance, Happenings, art cabaret, syllabic and chance poetry, noise music, satiric “Commedia Del Arte, Situationism, guerilla theater, collage, found object, multi- media, mail art networks- all these “modern” tendencies acquired escape velocity and legitimacy within the DADA magnetic field. the person of marcel Duchamp is seminal in 20th Century art, yet he remains a mystery figure, handled with radiation tongs by the historians. both he and Dali are, in my view, the sources of illumination for our current artistic era, sources which are at their core anti decadent,ahem, in spite of appearances in the case of Dali. there is an error in thought among Romantics that assumes that analysis is not intuitive or that it somehow short-circuits the emotions. the problem is that the Romantics turn an unknown into a yardstick. this is impossible! is intuition rational? it may be exceedingly rational, we really don’t know, do we? there is no reason why analysis and intuition are not complementary extensions of each other. if we hypothesize that emotion occurs in the present and extends into the future and intuition occurs in the future and extends to the present, then we might get a useful interaction going between these two variants of the same predictive theme.

JL that sounds uncharacteristically yin and yangish. my contradiction detectors are in a state of alarm

WA look, you take any section of a line and you have a smaller line with two ends. are the ends of the segment opposites? word-symbols are truncations of existence which can appear to be in opposition. if you observe only the eddies of a stream you’ll end up with an erroneous concept of the river system. artists have repressed certain capacities to entertain the obvious, and, interestingly, have behaved much like the specialists with a blinkered field of view that they so abhor. in any event, it cannot be denied that politically if not psychologically, most artists feel themselves to be separated from society at large. although this separation might confer an ability to observe from a distance, in a neutral manner, the separation instead creates an elitist revetment from which to make judgements divorced from the ability to exert effective control. i am not denying that the consumerist pig-out reflects a vile debasement of our sense of value. but you’d expect a social group that is based upon “seeing differences” to be able to differentiate between the production and consumption of frivolous commodities, and the production and consumption of intelligent, necessary commodities. Capitalist production must not be attacked for its ability to produce wealth. the ability to produce is creative and, as such, should attract the active and positive interest of every artist. the failure of Capitalist production is that it has been held in the grip of the Feudalist, Oligarchical, Latifundist, ground rent speculator Aristocracy against which it originally rebelled. anyhow, it looks like the Capitalists have achieved hegemony on the planet. it is futile to oppose Capitalism in principle. but it is not futile to understand its revolutionary anti-Feudalist roots and emphasize those tendencies within it which are universally productive. besides, there are too many disturbing contradictions in leftist rhetoric which have escaped a rigorous, policy changing discussion. the whole issue of the Radical Left’s tolerance of drugs is indecipherable to me. from an economic standpoint, drug dollars swell Fascist coffers; from a social standpoint, drugs tear into the ghetto Proletariat like a runaway chainsaw. from a spiritual standpoint, any enslavement of the human soul is disgusting. this failure of analysis by the cadre elite occurred for one reason only- it was assumed that any acceleration of the presumed ultimate and inescapable decay of Capitalism was a revolutionary act of the correct line. let me say it once: dogma is dog shit. this Leftist complicity with the forces of corruption no longer has the ineluctable force of history behind it.

JL so, ok…what’s next, i know there’s a practical side to your work, assuming there’s even an ounce of truth to any of this…

WA why don’t we inform the life-philosophy approach of the environmentalists with true Anarchy, the kind without mind fuck fanaticism, neurotic nostalgia, victim worship, secret society bonding con games, and invisible ideology cops. priority one, after the settling out of the political situation, is to get humanity fed. once we raise the living standard of the Third World, we can tackle the population problem. the industrial West can entertain birth control because our standard of living allows us choice. in areas where survival is marginal, nature impels the individual to reproduce. education will not work against instinct in situations for which the instinct evolved. we face the peril of rationalizing draconian nonvoluntary sterilization measures and/or letting disease run rampant in the deluded belief that our medicine is prepared for any onslaught. both these strategems are Fascist. technology transfer and industrial parity is the only creative, ethical choice. environmentalists are going to have to accommodate themselves to industrialization as a necessity or be accused of racist genocide. if we get our butts into info-overdrive, and move our brains at least once a day, we can usher in an age of Renaissance and maintain our problem solving momentum. but we only stand a chance of playing an important part in what will most likely come to pass with or without our involvement if we look to the creators of renaissances for clues about method.

JL in the past you have mentioned “renaissance” as an idea that might allow for a sense of continuity for artists. but for someone prognosticating about future trends, this sound a bit retrograde. i know a lot of artists who associate that period with Machiavellian intrigues and a repressive Church-dominated aesthetic.

WA yah, right…Renaissance, a bunch of artists got together and decided to change history, one of them was Charlton Heston. we really have a childish, cartoon view of most of history. the central philosophical tenet that gave impetus to the Italian Renaissance was that the well-being of humanity is the divine proportion by which all things are measured. how many renaissances can you name besides the Italian one? there was Golden Age Greece, early Islam, the Carolingian renaissance, the Gothic Renaissance- city building around cathedrals, the Bardic- 14th Century nation building around minstrel-poetics in the vernacular tongue, the Elizabethan of Shakespeare, Milton and Marlowe, the Gutenberg which led to the Protestant shattering of Vatican hegemony, the Copernican of 17th Century observational science, the French Enlightenment of classless Universal Suffrage, the Industrial leading to Republican representational Democracies, the recent Electric which put a 110 vold outlet in every wall and the present Electronic Renaissance which should be nicknamed the TV Renaissance. (laughs) in every case these renaissances were preceded by some form of technological watershed which forced greater access to economic or governmental justice by greater numbers of citizens. unfortunately, these renaissances were followed by periods of repression where the forces of reaction waged merciless warfare against the just application of technology, which they knew in their bones would eventually relieve them of their dictatorial burdens. it’s high time to rehabilitate Leonardo DaVinci. he’s been bad rapped to point of character assassination. DaVinci is commonly accused of dedicating his genius to the invention of weapons. now you sit down with a volume of all his known drawings and count them up. if i have to make the point any clearer, we’re dealing with an impaired learning ability. also you have to recognize that within the historic context of warring city states, one acted to defend one’s city. DaVinci is also considered wicked because he invented machines. if you think that machines are intrinsically evil, then live your life without them starting right now. if you feel that human genius is intrinsically evil, then you are a fucking Storm Trooper goon. we have very little sense of the power that artists wielded in those days as one of the few virtuous communication channels between the common folk and the Crown. remember that artists had their patrons sitting for hours at end, a privileged audience for which lesser courtiers would commit murder. artists were powerful in those days because they had skills that were indispensable to affairs of state. artists had more freedom of movement among circles of diplomatic power than any portfolio’d ministry. in the great salons of the Enlightenment, it would have been unthinkable to proceed without the addition of contemporary musicians, composers, poets, novelists, painters…you get the picture.

JL you see science and technology as underwriting human progress and as a background upon which artists would do well to intermediate more frequently. many would argue that science has done nothing more than mess up the planet. but you still haven’t made clear how artists can be more effective than PR men or science popularizers like Carl Sagan.

WA ok. knowledge has a shape. whatever the quantity or mix, it has a shape. it’s called culture. it results in velocity, direction and artifacts. that is to say, it is a propellant to beings. the thing that artists do that others don’t is they give shape to the sum total of their culture’s knowledge at a given epoch of civilization. their artifacts, if properly deciphered, should be able to give more clues about the mental evolution of that society than any other artifact. artists create time capsules. art is the Universe’s way of measuring its progress towards self-realization. many of the key inventions in those renaissances were communication devices increasing the detail resolution of old-to-new culture info transfer and broadening the base of potential recipients. information is a crucial substance. one of the greatest inventions of the last generation was the US Freedom of Information Act. the reason artists lost their important positions near to centers of power is because they were tricked into intellectual exile. exile means you don’t communicate. creation for an audience-of-one is narcissism. go to a contemporary art museum, you’ll se a lot of it there. you’ll see a lot of work whose point of departure is the subjective. the point of arrival then also becomes the subjective. if the artist’s subjective universe manifests mostly pain and injury, the spectator is going to get injured by the art. worse than presenting injury for public inspection, is the creation of ambivalence in the mind of the viewer who will persist in trying every lexicological contortion possible to derive meaning from an inherently ambivalent communication. the communication of ambivalence is a being-destroyer’s stratagem. ambivalence is not: “here is the evidence, you decide”, it is: “here is something or nothing, you can’t decide”. indecision is the henbane of existence. re-decision is liberating. being free means that you can go back and be re-decisive as often as you like. this is what the Church of the Subgenius means by “slack”. acting decisively in correctable increments seems to be a difficult thing for many humans. it’s really like letting go a bit to get a better grip. something like that.

JL i’m not so sure the mystery is evaporating. you make so many assumptions that could be contested that i don’t know where to begin.

WA begin anywhere, it’s a total field of event relations. we’ll eventually get where you itch.

JL there has been a long pause since the last recognizable innovation in art, i’d say actually from the period of the Happenings at which time it was made clear that traditional exhibition formats began to function less. are galleries obsolete?

WA the search for new forms up to now has been essentially a search for an identity, an extension of the persona, a therapy ward acting-out of unresolved personal conflicts. those artists suffering from role model insufficiency are caught up in a hopeless attempt to bring back elements of the past for re- integration as stability factors. the creation of Primitivist totems and ritual as art, as well as spiritualist Visionary and Naif forms are symptomatic of artists being trapped to one degree or another in the past. those art forms which are centered upon sado- masochism, life-style eccentricities, self-referential or groupie-referential themes, are essentially reactions of helplessness before an overwhelmingly complex and presumed threatening world of social events. the issues, there, are about control in the present. finally- art that relies heavily upon message content, warnings of danger or hard-line political doctrines are likely to spring from a sense of foreboding about the future. the fact is that artists move into new areas of expression at a very cautious pace and in small numbers. it is incomprehensible to me, for example, that filmmaking faculties at teaching institutions still outnumber video faculties almost across the board, or did until very recently. video has met tremendous intransigence in the art world from both artists and exhibitors. TV media didn’t make a breakthrough into the fine arts until the industry was capable of creating cheap, consumer oriented products, whereupon its legitimacy was reluctantly recognized. if you are my age, you easily recall the day the Bob Dylan swapped his acoustic guitar for an electric one. his fans howled- sell out! yet his music tripled in power and range without losing its purity. in any event, artists did nothing to establish fluency between technology and the public, but rode in on the public’s self generated fluency on account of consumer product access. David Hockney “discovers” polaroid mosaics after the medium has been out there for 20 years. artists don’t have a clue. shit. this one’s for Rickie. that’s it. over and out.

JL thank you, i suppose.

WA stay sane, Justine- baby needs you that way.

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